As Frédérique lies dead on her kitchen table at the hands of Christophe, police try to piece together the events that led to the gruesome killing. Frédérique’s teenage daughter narrates the tragic tale of love gone wrong.
Review by Kevin Vu: Though it possesses the voice of a notorious auteur, “Perfect Love” is one of Catherine Breillat’s lesser works. Despite being her sixth feature, the film seems like an early and minor effort, containing recurring elements explored in more accomplished films (e.g. “Fat Girl” and “Romance”), not to mention the sex and flesh that marries her reputation with vulgarity and controversy. Although Breillat has since found alternative outlets for her provocation and feminine rage, such as costume drama and fairytale, she has always challenged the conventional notions of sex using facets of the human body and soul that she strips bare – figuratively and literally. The plot here is not a matter of boy meets girl, and it never is for Breillat as she continues to reveal human depravity through sexuality.
The romance in “Perfect Love” involves Frédérique (Isabelle Renauld), an aging career woman and mother of two, and twenty-something playboy Christophe (Francis Renaud). Like the female half of the May-December romance we see in “Brief Crossing,” Frédérique clearly possesses more life experience than her young lover. Their emotional and generational gap soon has male and female, boy and woman, jockeying for control and dominance. Thanks to the film’s meandering narrative of jealousy, quarrels, and fucking, we know that this “perfect love” will prove tragic, as one of them will die at the hands of the other. Cunningly, and rather uncharacteristically, Breillat tucks the hard-ons, genitalia, and bondage fantasies away into her subconscious, opting for a tragic love story inhabiting a more tame, bourgeois terrain.
Her extreme vision is less externalized and rather subdued here. Yet to recognize Breillat as a mere provocateur, one who paints her fortunes with sperm and anatomy, belies her skill at exposing love and sexuality as an issue of male dominance and female identity. “Perfect Love” remains steeped in the director’s carnal psychology as she offers insight into these ill-fated lovers. But compared to Breillat’s stronger female protagonists, Frédérique is an uninvolving and sketchy (and mostly clothed!) person. Nevertheless, she proves to be a cold woman with unsown wild oats, one who cannot afford to lose Christophe. She’s unable to stand the possibility of him finding happiness without her. Their age gap inspires insecurity and a need for him to retain control of his masculinity as Frédérique ridicules his sexual incompetency throughout. Their emotional bile is best represented by the film’s cathartic climax, when Frédérique is raped and then sodomized with a broomstick by Christophe.
Ever the unforgiving feminist, Breillat finds sexual ugliness in the male gender as she once again displays patriarchal domination, the throbbing penis a tool of oppression. She fills her final frames with haunting images of flesh subjected to penetration and defilement, of woman becoming both subject and object. But in Breillat’s bizarre light, both man and woman are victim here, as the false notion of ‘perfect love’ results in mutual destruction. The movie has the underdeveloped yet fearless impact of a cinematic radical sharpening her knife. Unfortunately, though Breillat’s raw themes are intact, “Perfect Love” never gains a clear sense of identity beyond its hollow melodrama or its visceral unpleasantness, since the filmmaker’s ambitions are mottled and distant at best
Last Word: As a different approach to gender and sexual politics, “Perfect Love” is almost as pointed and philosophically brutal as Breillat’s greater achievements. But the film is second-tier due to an unchallenging narrative that undermines the director’s true strengths.